Today’s television landscape would be unrecognisable to viewers from even just two decades ago. The original television model – a boxy, bulky frame built around a cathode-ray tube – has completely given way to the sleek, ultra-slim widescreen displays mounted to living room walls across the world. The fuzzy images of old – at times dependent on wind direction – have been replaced by super sharp high-definition pictures, which allow viewers to discern even facial pores and individual fabric threads during the nightly news. Even the creaky analogue signals that originally carried the television sensation into unsuspecting homes from the mid-1950s were, in 2013, axed in favour of more reliable digital broadcasts, relegating many of yesterday’s aerial issues to the dustbin of history.
The advent of digital also introduced a deluge of new channels and services that have infinitely broadened the spectrum of Australian television. Those who grew up with just three or four stations to choose from can now essentially choose to watch what they want, when they want. But while YouTube and streaming services have given viewers unprecedented power to program their own entertainment schedules – an unimaginable concept at the dawn of television – the networks continue to work tirelessly behind the scenes, programming their own content and providing free-to-air audiences with variety, substance and structure. Amid the chaos of limitless choice, they are order.
Although the medium may have dramatically changed, the message remains the same. Despite an abundance of options, escapism is still television’s singular purpose – and an inspiration to its stewards. “When I look back with a slightly more mature brain, I honestly think it was the escapism,” says Network 10 parent company ViacomCBS Australia and New Zealand’s Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President Beverley McGarvey of her initial attraction to the television industry. Amid a childhood set against the turbulent backdrop of 1970s Belfast, she found in television a gateway to a world of glamour and excitement. “We used to have such little choice. There were three channels. Now there’s such an incredible amount of choice, and whatever it is you feel like or whatever your mood, you’ll be able to find a great show to satisfy those needs.”
In terms of content, TV has undergone a kind of vindication in recent years. Movies and television have been engaged in a kind of entertainment tug of war for decades, with TV shows often acting as launching points for superstars of the silver screen. Today, it’s almost the reverse: enticed by high-quality, cinema-level productions such as Game of Thrones and The Crown, movie actors have flocked to the medium, which in turn has boosted TV’s prestige.
“Movie stars have started making a lot more TV shows,” Beverley explains. “And that’s because at the minute, TV is a very prominent medium for great-quality writing and performances, and just great content. Whether it’s drama or reality or whatever you’re into, there’s so much of it and the quality has improved exponentially.”
TV has also managed to hold its own in the breaking news realm it helped to pioneer, even holding off that up-to-the-minute giant, the internet. While newspapers have nosedived in the wake of the online news revolution, TV has kept the pace. A recent Roy Morgan survey found that although online sources have overtaken TV as the main news outlet for Australians, the box isn’t far behind: 12.7 million Australians prefer online, while 12.4 million have stuck with TV. In the information-hungry US, TV remains the most popular source of news.
For Beverley, TV news played a crucial part in her young life. “Growing up in that era in Northern Ireland, news was really important, so I started working in newsrooms because it was a kind of a window to the world,” she shares. In the UTV newsroom in Belfast, she got a taste of the hectic pace of TV news. “I was running scripts around and working in all sorts of different parts of the business, which was great because I got to do a bit of everything.” From there, Beverley channel-surfed from UTV to TV3 in Dublin, then the ITV network in the UK, to TV3 in New Zealand, ultimately ending up in Sydney at Canwest, then-owner of Network 10. “I had been Director of Programming in New Zealand, so when I moved to Sydney and Network 10, I became Head of Programming there,” she says. “That was about 14 years ago. I’ve been at 10 ever since through various iterations of ownership. Now I have two Australian children, so I think I’m here for good.”
Although Beverley started out with a media degree, her creative instincts led her to be perceived largely as a creative executive. “But over the years, I became more and more interested in the commercial side of the business, which itself is quite creative,” she reveals. “So being able to blend those things together over the past few years has been what has really driven me.”
Same Time, Different Channel
That drive has carried Network 10 from a one-channel service with modest digital offerings into one of Australian TV’s major media entities in the digital age. “We now have four free-to-air channels, a subscription television business, multiple digital businesses and probably no different headcount, if not slightly smaller to what we had back in 2006,” Beverley reflects. “The world has obviously changed dramatically and so have all of our roles and how we do things, and a lot of that has to do with technology.”
In 2006, Network 10 was still broadcast in analogue and standard definition, formats that would be alien to today’s high-definition digital-savvy audiences. “The really interesting thing for me in terms of the evolution of the technology is that advances such as HD and streaming services have provided more choice,” Beverley says. “And increased choice has provided the capacity for us to improve the quality of what we offer our audiences.”
Another by-product of the technological evolution, she says, is an amplification of local voices in that sea of content. “Australian content has really come to be the dominant force in the linear business and the premier business,” she tells. “If you look at Seven, Nine, 10 or ABC any night of the week, what you’ll see is local content.”
Growing up, my parents would see me watching TV and say, ‘Do your homework. That’s not going to be a career.’
Beverley points to shows such as MasterChef and I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! as examples of Network 10’s faith in local content beyond perennials like Neighbours. “When I first came to Australia, you would probably have seen The Simpsons or Melrose Place, that sort of thing,” she says. “But we’ve really pushed into local content, which is incredible because it’s really good quality and it’s great for an Australian business to provide that environment, not just for Australian stories and Australian voices, but also for Australian employment and to build the skill set we have in the country in terms of the production and business side of things.”
What’s on the Box
The international content that once dominated 10’s line-up has moved on to new platforms such as subscription video on demand (SVOD), catch-up services and the network’s extended slate of channels. In addition to the vanilla 10 (available in SD and HD), there’s 10 Bold, which focuses on a male audience and includes drama, sport and lifestyle programs; 10 Peach, which targets young adults and is home to 10 stalwart Neighbours; and 10 Shake, which launched in September 2020 and concentrates on programming for younger viewers. “These give us a lot more room for a lot more content and that has, I think, really stimulated the capacity for us to do other things.”
The world has obviously changed dramatically and so have all of our roles and how we do things, and a lot of that has to do with technology.
For Beverley, those things include flexing her creative muscles within the 10 framework. “Earlier in my career, I was very motivated by driving creative teams but, as things have moved forward, I think what I’ve come to realise about myself is that to be relevant in that creative space, you’ve got to have commercial skills as well,” she insists. “Making beautiful things that people don’t want to watch is called art. This is a business – what we do is commercial – so just getting the balance right in terms of making shows, such as MasterChef or The Project, that people want to watch, that our audience and our clients want to be a part of, has become more and more important.”
And business is good: MasterChef has become a ratings juggernaut. Salivating audiences in COVID-19 lockdowns tuned in en masse during 2020 to deliver the show a 46 per cent ratings boost over 2019 in a year that’s been a winner for Network 10. But even long-running hits eventually reach a point of maturity that demands a refresh. “We need shows at every stage of their life cycle. Something in year one, something in year five, year 10, year 12, so that you have a constant evolution of things coming through,” Beverley says.
There’s also a cyclical element to programming: some kids watching MasterChef today weren’t born when the show premiered. “My daughter is a big fan and she’s six. She wasn’t around when we did it at the beginning. It’s about getting new viewers in to watch the channel, and when they trust our brand and know our shows have a particular feel to them, they stay with us. That kind of cycle of how you get people in and what they’re watching will continue to evolve.”
Telly Like It Is
There’s a secret ingredient to achieving that feel: authenticity. “When we cast a show like MasterChef, we’re primarily casting for people with a passion for food. Therefore, you get a consistent sense of what MasterChef is; that the people are there because they’re incredible cooks. Some of them have really interesting backstories and others are regular people you might bump into at the shop, but they all share that passion for food and that makes it work,” Beverley says. The Project, 10’s weeknightly current affairs panel program, also benefits from that authenticity: “It’s in the panellists and the participants in the show, they speak with an authentic voice and they believe what they’re saying. They need the flexibility and room to do that, and I think that’s how we produce our shows.”
That said, even in such a high-wire environment, risk still brings reward. “I always like to be doing new things and learning and moving forward. I try not to get too comfortable in one particular area. I like to learn from different parts of the business and dealing with different executives,” Beverley explains. The frequent ownership changes and restructuring efforts at Network 10 during her tenure have offered plenty of opportunities to do just that. “We may be the same company, but we’ve had several cultural changes along the way.”
Trial by TV
When Beverley arrived at Network 10 in 2006, the network was in a state of flux. While financial woes of the early to mid-1990s had largely subsided, the company had already changed ownership several times. Hits such as Big Brother and Australian Idol became social phenomena and positioned it as Australia’s reality television nucleus. “In those days, our opportunities were really about audience growth and, therefore, revenue growth,” she says. “My role was about driving that growth by commissioning shows that would be a hit, but over time, it also became about adding different distribution channels to the core business.”
One of the biggest changes Network 10 underwent was the shift from analogue to digital. Though it had flirted with HD since 2002, the advent of Ten HD in 2007 was a game-changer. A 2006 amendment to Australian law allowed networks to create multiple channels, provided they were exclusively digital broadcasts. Since then, its stable of channels has grown to include 10 Play, an advertising-based video on demand (AVOD) catch-up service, and the more recent 10 All Access, an SVOD that Beverley says will eventually relaunch as Paramount+ later this year.
“As Paramount+, it will compete on a more significant level,” she says of the initiative by Network 10’s current owners, ViacomCBS, to take on services such as Disney+ and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max. “But at the beginning, these VODs were really about improving what we did in terms of showcasing the hit shows that brought audiences and, therefore, revenue. It’s just evolved into distribution, and now it’s really about just continuing that path.”
But like any business, its work is never done. “It’s not like, ‘OK, we launched an SVOD service and an AVOD service, and we have our channels, so we’re done now,’” Beverley says. “It’s like, ‘What comes next?’” Considerations such as where audiences will be next, where they need to be taken and how they need to be served, as well as how best to satisfy 10’s clients dominate the post-launch atmosphere. “It’s all evolutionary now, there’s no standing still. You’re constantly moving forward. And even now, compared to five years ago the business is very different than it was. Some things are cyclical and something things move forward and change, and they change for good.”
That kind of seismic shift came to Network 10 in 2017. Years of speculation and uncertainty about the station’s ownership came to an end when US media giant CBS Corporation stepped in and swept it from the jaws of voluntary administration. Two years later, CBS itself re-merged with former stablemate Viacom, providing Network 10 with access to swathes of content from the ViacomCBS brand, including Comedy Central, Showtime, Nickelodeon and MTV.
We provide news and entertainment across a variety of platforms, and if you were to question any of that content, you’d find there’s a reason we’ve done it.
“These are incredibly powerful global content brands that I believe in. Also I have children who love Paw Patrol, so I’m very happy that we have Nick as a part of our repertoire,” Beverley smiles. The new content broadens 10’s scope and complements the network’s local line-up, which includes some of Australian TV’s biggest hits: MasterChef, Survivor, The Bachelor and The Project. “The merger has given us a unique position in the market, where we have a very strong local presence and strong local content, but also a content pipeline of probably some of the best in the world.”
The content, however, is the method; the tools of the trade. Making that content work for an audience is an art of its own, and respect, Beverley says, is the key to getting inside the heads of that audience. “I suspect that years ago, people would have talked about instinct and understanding what people want to see, and to a degree I believe in that. But to really have a feel for the content and know what audiences want, you have to respect that audience and believe in your content – really love it.”
As such, to effectively execute the role of Chief Content Officer isn’t a case of who or what you know. “It’s not a job where you can come from outside the industry and say, ‘OK, what are your shows? OK, I can do that.’ I genuinely think you’ve got to believe in the product because, at least, part of my job is bringing the business with me,” she adds.
A commitment to a new show or concept isn’t just one person’s rubber stamp; hundreds of people need to be brought on board to realise the vision. “If we commission or buy a new show, the first part of getting that to our audience is getting our entire team – 1000-plus employees – to believe it,” Beverley asserts. “Because if they don’t believe it, they can’t sell it to our clients and we can’t sell it to our audience. It doesn’t mean every single thing we do is my absolute favourite thing, but it has to be something that I can stand up and be proud of, and when I sell it to whomever, that I believe in. And I think that’s partly down to an instinct that comes from experience and a genuine passion for the industry.”
And that passion has its roots in childhood. “I watch lots of TV, I always have done,” she recalls. “Growing up, my parents would see me watching TV and say, ‘Do your homework. That’s not going to be a career.’”
Beverley believes that this deep-seated love for and understanding of the medium is essential to succeed in the industry. “When I talk to potential candidates or people who are pitching, or people who want employment, if they’re not passionate about television and the business – not necessarily in just the creative areas, but people who work on our team in specialised and, potentially, financial areas – if they don’t believe in the product, I don’t think they’ll ever be brilliant,” she confesses. “They might be good, but if they don’t have the passion for it, I would say, ‘Do something else,’ because it’s so all-consuming you’ve got to want to love it. And if you do, you’re more likely to know where your audience will go and what they’ll want to see next.”
The other essential ingredient, Beverley says, is risk. Some shows don’t look like hits on paper but, in practice, win over audiences and become cultural touchstones. “Logically, you might look at something like The Masked Singer – people dressed up in masks where you can’t see their faces, dressed as really silly, over-the-top characters; beautiful production values, but it’s essentially an octopus or a unicorn singing – and you’d think, ‘OK, I’m not sure about that.’ But when you really dig into it, it’s entertainment, it’s feel-good, it’s escapism, it’s fun, you can play along at home and watch with your kids,” she suggests. “Suddenly, it’s like, ‘OK, well, that’s not as illogical as it may first appear.’”
The heady, elusive fusion of risk and passion has carried Beverley to a plateau rarely reached in the television industry: personal satisfaction. “We have a slate of content I’m genuinely proud to be safeguarding. We provide news and entertainment across a variety of platforms, and if you were to question any of that content, you’d find there’s a reason we’ve done it,” she says. “People are very judgey about TV, everyone has an opinion, so it would be easy to put up a range of content that may be populist for a minute, or may be this or that, but to have a slate I’m actually proud of is probably the thing I’m happiest about. It’s harder than it sounds.”
However, the ultimate challenge faced by those in the television industry is change; the same powerful force that drove cinema audiences into their homes seven decades ago made entire seasons of TV hits available at the touch of a button and turned ordinary people into celebrities. For all the innovations, that change is a double-edged sword, the edge of which network executives walk every day. After all, what was a ratings hit yesterday could collapse tomorrow.
But although Beverley admits the constant change is her biggest challenge, it’s also her biggest opportunity. “I didn’t think so at the beginning,” she confesses. “At the beginning, the challenge was working out what my place was within that wave of change. How could I contribute? How could I stay relevant? How could I keep moving forward and do what I believe I should be doing, and still contribute to the business?”
With time and experience came a new perspective that has taken Beverley – and Network 10 – to new heights. “Now I understand that change is constant and constant change is the business I love to be in.”